Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services


Testing through Volunteering

A sociology class assigns five hours of volunteer work in lieu of a traditional midterm exam

Photo courtesy of the Texas Diaper Bank

As midterm exams approached this past spring, students in Courtney Barrie’s sociology class about poverty weren’t cramming for the usual test. Instead, they were completing their required hours of volunteering.

“The class is really looking at what poverty is in our country. What is poverty overseas? How is it affecting people on an individual and social level?” Barrie says. “What I wanted them to do was select an organization that is serving a low–income population and spend five hours there, meeting the people who they are serving and talking to the employees about the work that they’re doing.”

One such organization, where two of Barrie’s students volunteered, was the nonprofit Texas Diaper Bank. Program manager Angelica Torija says the students not only sorted diapers into packages handed out to families but also helped with office work like data entry.

Torija adds that one of the students told her she also is a mom; hearing the struggles of other families opened her eyes to how so many people don’t have the basics that others take for granted.

For Emilio Arriola, the nonprofit’s grants and development manager, the fact that a UTSA class assignment led to volunteering fills him with pride. A first generation college student, he graduated from UTSA in 2011 with a degree in political science and got his job at the nonprofit three months later. “I thought it was one of the best ideas,” he says about the class assignment. “School in general is trying to prepare students for the real world but, the problem is when they go into the real world, it can be a shock. You have to stay grounded. For them to volunteer and see what is happening in the real world and real world problems, I think, is really helpful.”

The agency gets a lot of volunteer groups from UTSA, he says. They help do sorting work at the storage facility and also hold collections for diapers and cleaning wipes. The need is great because there is no federal assistance for diapers, and at times low–income families can be left to decide whether to buy diapers and wipes or pay for electricity or food. This year, the nonprofit is expected to serve about 9,100 babies and toddlers.

UTSA students volunteer by helping sort infant care supplies at the Texas Diaper Bank.

Barrie heard the same kind of feedback in her classrooms, she says. Her first class to venture into volunteering was during the fall 2014, which happened to be when she began teaching. Barrie was offered a position in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts sociology department following her summer 2014 graduation with a master’s degree from the same program.

Because UTSA serves a lot of first–generation students, often from low–income populations, there have also been discussions from the students themselves about their own struggles.

Arriola says he can relate. He too had to stop attending university once because it became too difficult to juggle his full–time work and go to school. But through support of his friends and professors, he returned and graduated with a degree that helped him land his job at the nonprofit. “You just keep going, keep trying,” he says. “That was one thing that was preached to me. Just finish.”

Barrie says it was important to her that the students not just get facts and figures about poverty but see what poverty looks like, how it is relative to a community depending on what resources are lacking. Part of the class is discussing the way people can insulate themselves from seeing problems in the community–avoiding certain neighborhoods or navigating the city to stay in specific areas.

“This is a way to bust through that insulation,” she says. “If people are suffering in your community, you should have to look at them, you should have to be emotionally impacted by them—even if it’s just for five hours a semester—because that will give you just enough exposure to maybe have more compassion for people around you.”